Late June of this year saw the fourth edition of Cinesonic – an international conference on film scores and sound design. On offer again this year was an array of presentations made by writers and practitioners from both around Australia and overseas, and international special guests which included professionals in the areas of composing and sound design for film. In contrast to last year, however, the program was much smaller: there was no spotlight event to launch the conference (which last year was a discussion with the late Jack Nitzsche), nor were there any film screenings coinciding with themes and issues explored at the conference and the program of lectures itself was considerably reduced. Regardless, the quality at this year’s conference was overall substantial though not as high as previous years, and the event itself remains invigorating and innovative.
From the very beginning, Cinesonic has presented itself on the stage of international film culture as a major and professional event bringing together both leading practitioners and theorists in the area of sound design and film scores. Over its four years, it has played host to leading composers like Howard Shore, Carter Burwell, François Musy, Randy Thom, and Jack Nitzsche, and notable writers, theorists and academics from both around Australia and the globe. Admirable about Cinesonic is not only its aspiration and vision to promote a badly neglected yet immensely rich area of film and film criticism but its delivery of high quality ‘content’, with topics ranging wide and far. As an event, Cinesonic is still in its infancy and is still evolving as it responds to audience feedback, builds up support from government and private sponsors and pursues various programming ideas, approaches and options.
There was again this year a continuation of themes from previous years, such as the role of ‘voice’ in film, but also a new array of topics, such as sound in television, in particular, the TV program “ER”, the role of post-dubbed sound in Indian cinema, and two of the more theoretical papers in the conference taking approaches to notions of rhythm and sound and their relation to spectatorship from the work of Walter Benjamin. The special guests in composing and sound design, and the conference’s most popular, well-attended sessions, were Simon Fisher-Turner, composer for Derek Jarman, and Skip Lievsay, sound designer for directors such as Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers. Both sessions, occurring at prime evening timeslots, were highly interesting and engaging and benefited enormously from each presenter’s ability to establish a rapport with the audience.
Fisher-Turner, who appeared before a projection of Jarman’s film work and accompanied by a meditative, ambient score designed by himself, spoke freely about his association with Jarman, both professionally and personally. Through his very relaxed though innately storytelling approach, Fisher-Turner gave an indication of how Jarman worked. The hint of nostalgia for the lost period of the mid ’70s also made the presentation at times moving. Lievsay’s presentation on the other hand was much more conventional, liberally spiced with clips from films to demonstrate his work and from which he would then launch into technical discussions about his work as a sound designer and those more anecdotal relating to working with high profile directors like Lee, Scorsese and the Coens. Both presentations worked well, bringing together practitioners in sound design and film and those merely curious about this aspect of film production.
In terms of the conference papers, the number of overseas guests was much less than previous years and given the reduced number of conference sessions overall there also wasn’t as much diversity in topics and approaches as has been the case in the past. For example, besides Fisher-Turner’s presentation, there was little else in the conference devoted to composing and sound design for avant-garde, experimental film, potentially a very rich and interesting area. In addition, there was an absence across the papers on the role of sound and music in certain films, moments and genres from film history, previously a topic well-covered at Cinesonic, examples including film noir, musicals, Welles, Fritz Lang, the emergence of sound, Hollywood film, and even silent cinema.
One of the highlights of the conference papers and its very first presentation was Jodi Brooks’ paper titled “Worrying the Note: Mapping Time in the Gangsta Film”. Taking as a launching pad the writings of Walter Benjamin and in particular his exploration of issues of rhythm in forms of representation and “their relations to the temporal structuring experience in modernity”, Brooks examined a small cycle of gangsta films of the late ’80s and early ’90s such as F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off (1996) and Friday (1995), Allen and Albert Hughes’ Menace II Society (1993), and Ernest Dickinson’s Juice (1992). An important premise in her argument was Benjamin’s notion of a “redemptive” potential of film, that is, film’s ability to embrace and reconfigure “the temporal structuring of modern experience and to use it as the basis for a new form of narrativity”. Referring to the work of writers such as Paul Gilroy and Arthur Jafa, Brooks introduced the notion of a rethinking of modernity from the point of view of the black diaspora in the West and the idea of how the ‘subordinated’ have negotiated and claimed a ‘memory’ of experience and history through configuring a particular structure of time, or what she referred to as a “time signature” characterised by a withholding of the falling of the beat. This “time signature” is evident across forms of black music right up to the contemporary gangsta cycle in film. The final part of Brooks’ paper was a fascinating discussion of how these films “worry the note”, activate a “temporal fissure”, through a complex process of referencing and destabilising generic clichés. Consequently, Brooks’ argument raised as problematic those critical discourses which position these films as documentary portraits of ‘ghetto life’ and black experience. As she argues: “If the [unexpected] slide into the generic cliché would seem to move us outside the field of a documentary or gritty urban realism, it also seems to move us out of a sense of linear, continuous time, by bringing time to an arrest in a reproduced and reproducible image”. The peculiar referencing and destabilising of generic cliché in the gangsta film activates a temporal fissure, arresting the image and opening up a space around the beat. Seeing as interlinked rhythmic structures in film, the spectator and ‘the temporal structuring of experience in modern life’ – that is, bringing together notions of time, rhythm and experience, and approaching film as music (echoing the work of Jafa and his notion of Black visual intonation) – this was fascinating and complex paper.
Referencing similar theoretical terrain was James Lastra’s paper titled “Sound Design and the Wagnerian Impulse, or the Fate of the Senses”. Lastra examined the notion of a total sensory experience sought by sound design in the late ’70s, culminating in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and its parallel with early sound practitioners who approached sound design as something independent of ‘reality’ rather than a mere striving for the clearest and most perfect replication of live events. Here, the approach taken by early sound practitioners like Edison is revealed as prescient of the impulse to restore a total sensory experience that would continue right up to the present. The political dimension of Lastra’s argument came via the work of Benjamin and Adorno and in particular their understanding of the structure of temporality in modernity, and the consequences of the illusion of total sensory perception, the most negative consequence being that humankind would “enjoy its own annihilation”, that is an aesthetisizing of war, that vaguely links fascism, the music of Wagner and sound design in Apocalypse Now. Similar to Brooks, Lastra incorporated into his analysis a redemptive reading of film, in which he argued that Apocalypse Now‘s references to Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation raises a discourse of irony and consequently a fissure for the “historically aware” spectator.
Kathryn Bird’s paper “Mouthing and Hong Kong Cinema” examined a range of performances from Hong Kong cinema that were characterised or ‘shaped’ by the sonic qualities of what they ‘mouthed’. Bird looked at the way certain actors and stars like Leslie Cheung, Bruce Lee and Brigitte Lin have carved out a performance style and a bodily status (as hard or soft) in the mise en scène via a set of associated sonic qualities, such as the disembodied voice, soft voice, reverb voice and so on. She also examined how vocal utterances – loud or quiet, hard or soft – affect elements of framing, action and narrative progression, and especially the peculiar role played by ‘vocalising’ in action sequences. Her examination of sound in Hong Kong cinema extended to an exploration of ‘projectile’ sounds made when objects such as weapons and bodies “displace” air, the play with various dialects and dubbing and other ‘uses’ of mouths in Hong Kong cinema like the “ejection” of blood. Whilst this was an interesting paper, it lacked rigour and a methodology to bestow its various observations with real insight.
Ken Wark’s paper, “The E.R.-Effect: The Sound of Ambient Suffering” was a detailed examination of the role of diegetic sound in the TV program “ER” and in particular how the sounds of machines and technology that make up the hospital environment assume dramatic and empathetic qualities and function as counterpoints to the action of a scene. Philip Brophy in a paper titled “Body Mats & Super Slams: Sport, Sound and Violence” explored the “sound of the externalised body-object in audio-visual media”, an object that can be defined according to a slam/post-slam dichotomy, where both events can be defined in relation to sound, and so positioning the body as a site upon which dramatic and generic action can be inscribed. Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s paper, “Post-Dubbed Sound in Indian Cinema”, explored how post-dubbing of every aspect of sound in Indian film effectively gives rise to the notion of a ‘single source of sound’, which mirrors an aesthetic particular to modern Indian art such as photography and film in which there is a direct, single relation between spectator and object. In turn, this aesthetic relation echoes the iconic relationship in Indian society between ‘deity’ and ‘believer’. These structures and paradigms that post-dubbed sound put into play might also account for the popularity of Indian cinema within India, Rajadhyaksha argued, since their commanding of the viewer can be seen as a “political privilege”. Rajadhyaksha also argued how in fact the nature of sound in Indian cinema enables us to understand aspects of cinema at large, especially spectatorship (thereby addressing as problematic the marginalisation of Indian cinema within film studies).
The final day of the conference was practitioner-oriented with Australian filmmakers reflecting on issues of sound in their craft. Documentary filmmaker and critic, Megan Spencer, in a paper titled “Shout it Out Loud: The Voice of the Documentary Subject”, examined the voice of the subject in documentary film, with examples from Benjamin Smoke (Jem Cohen, 1999), Cunnamulla (Dennis O’Rourke (1999), Pie in the Sky: the Brigid Berlin Story (Shelly Dunn Fremont, Vincent Fremont, 2000), Grey Gardens (David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, 1975) and Heathens, her own work. Spencer considered the ‘voice’ of documentary cinema to be a sum of the filmmaker’s voice and the voice of the subject, suggesting that the latter could even take on a function independent of the former. Her argument thereby sought to address the absence in critical writing on the documentary format of the voice of the documentary subject. The documentary subjects she looked at were individuals living on the margins of, and in contest with, mainstream society, those who are normally ‘voiceless’, and whose voices are not only a channel to express their point of view but also a material texture that connotes a way of life and set of values. This was a lively and interesting presentation, bringing together both a practitioner and critical perspective on issues of ‘reality’ in documentary. It also opened up the interesting area of exactly how the two ‘voices’ – that of the subject and the documentary filmmaker – operate together and instances where they grind against, inform or negotiate each other.
Cinesonic ended again this year with an “Australian industry session”, which featured directors Sue Brooks, Mark Savage and Richard Lowenstein discussing their experiences of music soundtracks, scores and sound design for their recent feature film projects. And so, I look forward to next year’s conference and its insights into, and discussions of, sound in film.